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Russian Oil Trader Sues The Economist for Libel

Gunvor International B.V., a major trader of Russian oil, and its co-owner Gennady Timchenko filed a suit with the High Court in London against The Economist, a major London-based business magazine.  The claimants allege that a magazine article devoted to corruption in Russia was libellous as to them.[1]

Timchenko’s name first became publicly known in 2004 when Ivan Rybkin, then a presidential candidate (and a former State Duma Chairman), publicly named Timchenko among the people “responsible for Putin’s business.”  Timchenko has always denied any special relations with Putin.

In November 2008 The Economist published an article entitled “Grease my palm: bribery and corruption have become endemic” devoted to corruption in Russia.[2]  Inter alia, the article contained the following passage.

[QUOTE] Mr Khodorkovsky was accused, among other things, of selling Yukos’s oil through offshore trading companies to minimise taxation. So now Rosneft sells the bulk of its oil through a Dutch-registered trading firm, Gunvor, whose ownership structure looks like a Chinese puzzle. The rise in Gunvor’s fortunes coincided with the fall of Yukos. A little-known company before 2003, Gunvor has grown into the world’s third-largest oil trader, which ships a third of Russia’s seaborne oil exports and has estimated revenues of $70 billion a year.

One of Gunvor’s founders is Gennady Timchenko, who sponsored a judo club of which Mr. Putin was honorary president and worked in an oil company that was given a large export quota as part of a controversial oil-for-food scheme set up by Mr Putin during his time in St Petersburg. Mr Timchenko says he was not involved in the deal and his success is not built on favours. [UNQUOTE]

In January 2009 Timchenko and Gunvor filed a libel claim against the magazine.  They ask for damages (the amount is unknown) and for the injunction to publish similar information.  Some experts interviewed by the Vedomosti opine that the court may require Timchenko and Gunvor, in support of their claims, to disclose Timchenko’s asset structure and/or Gunvor beneficial ownership structure. 

Arguably, the necessity to produce the solution of the “Chinese puzzle” may come as an unpleasant surprise for Russian oil traders.  Unlike U.K. or U.S. law, Russian law does not provide for any meaningful information-disclosure procedure in civil suits: in Russia each party normally relies on the evidence the party itself is able to collect and willing to produce.



[2] http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12628030.  Note that the disputed statements were removed from the magazine site.  The original (unedited) version may be found, e.g., here (or in the paper magazine): http://www.wordofsouth.com/myblock/showthread.php?t=70375.

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